Coronato Is Out as Governor Appoints Democrat for County Prosecutor

Sep 26, 2018
Photo by: Pat Johnson TIME’S UP: At one of his town hall presentations, Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato spoke to Little Egg Harbor residents about how the drug problem is growing crime.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved Gov. Phil Murphy’s appointment of Toms River attorney and Democrat Bradley Billhimer as Ocean County prosecutor, replacing Joseph Coronato, who held the job five years.

Coronato, who was appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie, will leave office on Oct. 8.

Coronato has been a champion in fighting the opioid drug epidemic in Ocean County, the state and the country. As recently as Sept. 6, he was one of six distinguished speakers invited to Washington, D.C. to testify before the House Global Health Subcommittee on the danger of fentanyl abuse. During the hearing “Tackling Fentanyl: Holding China Accountable,” he spoke alongside U.S. State Department official Kristin Madison, assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement; and Paul Knierim, deputy chief of operations, Office of Global Enforcement, Drug Enforcement Administration in the U.S. Department of Justice.

His dire prediction to the House: “Within five years synthetic drugs such as fentanyl will be the drug of choice for addicts.”

From the very start, after taking office in March 2013, Coronato took a proactive approach to the opioid overdose crisis by expanding the use of the drug court that diverts non-violent addicts away from jail and into recovery programs. He established a program to supply police and other first responders with the anti-opioid drug naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan. (Naloxon works to reverse the effects of opioids in overdose cases, saving hundreds of lives in recent years.)

He also instituted and appeared at public drug awareness town halls in county high schools for parents and students, inviting high-profile speakers with first-person stories about addiction or the heart-rending cost of losing loved ones to overdose.

In 2014, Coronato was named Prosecutor of the Year by the New Jersey Narcotics Officers Association for his immediate attention and actions taken to combat the growing heroin epidemic. The nomination contained the following information: Coronato formed two new Southern and Northern Units within the Special Operations Group to combat the rising death toll associated with heroin overdoses. He directed his Special Operations Group to identify and arrest drug dealers big or small and to seize their assets. The prosecutor immediately got involved with the State Commanders Association by volunteering to serve as counsel to that organization. He also serves on the state’s Opiate Task Force. Coronato realized that in addition to an aggressive enforcement program, education and awareness are paramount in getting a foothold on Ocean County’s drug problem. He directed his staff to create drug education forums in both the northern and southern parts of the county. He enlisted the help of professional athletes and musicians. Over 2,500 Ocean County residents attended his drug forums in 2013, and his community outreach programs touched thousands more.

Prosecutor Coronato also spearheaded the Narcan program for local police officers. He is the driving force behind local police officers in Ocean, Monmouth and a number of other counties training and preparing to carry Narcan.

He continued to expand the use of naloxon, making it available to EMTs, and to addicts and friends of addicts, along with training on how to use it.

Coronato directed his staff to organize regular K-9 sweeps of the county’s schools and parking lots surrounding the schools.

Coronato didn’t stop with aggressive enforcement and education; he worked with local legislators to change the law to target drug dealers at the center of the heroin trade so they would face longer sentences. He directed his staff to vigorously investigate and prosecute for manslaughter those drug dealers responsible for distributing heroin that results in a death. In nine months of 2013, he indicted six individuals for strict liability/drug induced death investigations.

Next was a push to establish safe prescription drug disposal sites countywide, to keep expired or unused prescription drugs out of the hands of children and out of the waterways. Wastewater sewer systems cannot clear flushed drugs of their harmful chemicals, and they wind up impacting marine life.

Through his years fighting this crisis, Coronato stressed that addiction is a disease and addicts should not be treated as criminals, but as sick people needing a chance to get well.

His office instituted placing a social worker or mental health facilitator at police stations to help with intake of drug addicts. He started the Blue HART program in a number of police departments, which allows addicts to turn themselves in on certain days and get started on a treatment path without fear of prosecution.

Thanks to Coronato’s office in publicizing the opioid drug epidemic, in August of this year Valerie Nickerson, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New Jersey Division, announced the formation of a new task force for Ocean and Monmouth counties. She said that over the past several years, the DEA recognized the increased heroin and prescription opioid threat to the Monmouth and Ocean County areas, which led to the creation of this new unit.

The new office means the permanent assignment of DEA special agents and task force officers, with the aim of disrupting the trafficking of narcotics throughout Monmouth and Ocean counties. It will also allow for the increased use of federal resources to combat the current heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkiller epidemic that has taken a toll on the area, resulting in an unprecedented number of drug overdose fatalities.

Coronato’s latest accomplishment is getting the county’s Digital Forensic Laboratory accredited by the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation, the first non-federal lab in New Jersey and only county prosecutor lab to be accredited in the country.

Coronato has said he has received numerous job offers and is reviewing the next move in his career.

For his part, Billhimer has said he will build on Coronato’s work on addictions and continue many of his initiatives.

Billhimer, 48, has been appointed for a five-year term. In 2000 he graduated with a law degree from Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Del., with a Dean Arthur A. Wells Outstanding Service Award.

A year after graduation he started practicing law as a law clerk for now retired Superior Court Judge Barbara Ann Villano. He then joined the Toms River practice of Karl Mohel and was made a partner in 2005. Billhimer started his own practice in 2010. He is an adjunct professor in criminal law at Ocean County College and co-chairs the Ocean County Bar Association’s Criminal Practice Committee and Municipal Court practice committee. He is also on the board of directors for a nonprofit food bank in Toms River called The People’s Pantry.

He had two unsuccessful campaigns for public office in predominately Republican Ocean County: for Ocean County surrogate in 2002, and for a 9th District Assembly seat in 2012. 

— Pat Johnson

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